Welfare Imaginaries Zine

We are delighted to be able to share our collective 'Welfare Imaginaries' zine with you. The pages for this zine were made during the creative sessions of the three Welfare Imaginaries seminars held in Lancaster, Liverpool and Birmingham. If you attended any of these events, see if you can spot your page! The zinemaking was guided by artist Jean McEwan, who also collated everyone's work and designed the zine. Thank you everyone who contributed to the zine with such invention, energy and expression. We hope you enjoy exploring it.

We are delighted to be able to share our collective 'Welfare Imaginaries' zine with you. The pages for this zine were made during the creative sessions of the three Welfare Imaginaries seminars held in Lancaster, Liverpool and Birmingham. If you attended any of these events, see if you can spot your page! The zinemaking was guided by artist Jean McEwan, who also collated everyone's work and designed the zine. Thank you everyone who contributed to the zine with such invention, energy and expression. We hope you enjoy exploring it.


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A zine about the past, present

and future of welfare

Welcome to the Welfare

Imaginaries zine

This zine explores how we remember welfare

from the past - and how welfare was imagined by

previous generations.

It’s about the current context of welfare - a time

shaped by austerity, neoliberalism, Brexit,

borders, poverty, care, citizenship and, most

recently, Covid-19.

And it is about our imaginings of a future welfare

utopia. What do we want or hope we can do


This zine was produced by participants of the Welfare Imaginaries

seminar series, held in 2018 in Lancaster, Liverpool and Birmingham,

guided by artist Jean McEwan.

The accompanying text has been produced by the organisers of the


Kim Allen, Sara de Benedictis, Tracey Jensen, Kayleigh Garthwaite

and Ruth Patrick and drawing on blogposts written by those who

attended the series:

Kate Anderson, Alison Briggs, Stef Benstead, Gill Crawshaw, Nancy

Evans, Kate Haddow, Steve Hanson, Tracey Herrington and Michael


More information about the series can be found at https://


Welfare Past

We are living through a time of intense scrutiny upon the welfare

state: a decade of intense welfare reform and contracting public

provision, now followed by an unprecedented surge in welfare

claims as a result of slowed, postponed and furloughed work in

the context of the 2020 global Covid-19 pandemic.

At the centre of these shifts is a re-imagining of what welfare is for -

those metaphors of welfare as a ‘safety net’ that you are automatically

entitled to, that are universal, the very idea of welfare provision ‘from

cradle to grave’, involving mass services that would provide support

around health, education, care, housing and work - the question of

‘what welfare is for’, is changing at a rapid pace.

Over recent years our very conception of welfare has shifted away from

ideas of citizenship, universalism and entitlement and towards much

greater forms of conditionality and surveillance.

Even the idea of what ‘welfare’ is has shrunk: while it was once

associated with ‘social security’ or ‘social infrastructure’ - where the

state would take responsibility for hospitals, schools, homes and other

basic essential needs - ‘welfare’ has increasingly stood for ‘benefits’.

To understand these shifts, we need to look back at the welfare state of

the past, the welfare state of our parents and grandparents.

How was the case ‘for’ a welfare state constructed and circulated

through the media, in policy, and across public debate?

How do particular ideas about welfare become fostered and generated

across our personal and collective imaginations?

One of the most important ‘blueprint’ documents in the history of welfare was

Social Insurance and Allied Services, written by William Beveridge. Leading

up to its 1942 publication, Beveridge used radio, pamphlets and short films to

propagandise and generate public support for the welfare state. In the

introduction, Beveridge described the ‘revolutionary moment’ he hoped the

report would create. In the month following publication, an incredible 100,000

copies were sold. Mass Observation diaries from the time detail the queues

to get hold of a copy.

The case for a welfare state - what we might call a welfare imaginary - had to

be put forward and popularised, brought into peoples’ horizons of possibility

through media, public information campaigns, informal discussions and

public debate. Beveridge shared his welfare ideas through the metaphor of

‘five giants’ that had to be ‘slayed’ - he named them Want, Disease,

Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

This welfare imaginary was ambitious. It drew on ideas of social providence,

mass services and ‘cradle-to-grave’ entitlements. Each citizen would be

insured against periods of unemployment and fluctuating labour markets.

Every worker would be compensated if injured or ill. Special allowances were

created for children. The economic needs of older people were recognised.

It would include public education, social housing, public libraries, municipal

infrastructure and healthcare - via a National Health Service.

Thinking about the history of welfare has

made me think about my hometown and what

welfare looks like where I live.

Looking at the

history of the

welfare state and

the kinds of ideas

and assumptions

that it was built

upon helps us

interrogate the

current moment, an

era of


welfare reform and

retrenchment. This,

in turn, allows us

to imagine what

sort of welfare

state we want in

the future.

I have enjoyed

free education

and my family

have benefited

from various



My grandma’s

generation was

the first to

enjoy social

housing - and her

little council

house has been at

the centre of my


What I realise is how welfare is everywhere we go.

It made me think about how welfare has been

important in my own life.

It made me think about how we all need welfare.

Looking back at the welfare past can bring forth nostalgic good feelings - a

sense of a ‘golden age’ of welfare we may feel we have now lost. This

nostalgia might be particularly strong for specific institutions: the National Health

Service for example enjoys a particularly powerful place in British imagination,

often heralded as the ‘envy of the world’.

While other pieces of the post-War welfare state puzzle have been dismantled,

privatised or otherwise transformed recognition, the NHS is perhaps the last

recognisable pillar of universal mass services, prompting national pride and a

protectionism around its core principle of ‘free at the point of use’.

We see how swiftly ideas of the ‘NHS under attack’ or ‘at risk’, can be politically

mobilised. In the 2016 EU referendum, the ‘Leave’ campaign’s slogans circled

around the promise of ‘saving’ EU money and spending it instead on the NHS.

In the 2019 General Election, all political parties made ‘defending the NHS’ a

central pillar of their campaigning battleground, leading one NHS chief to urge

politicians to stop using the NHS as a ‘political weapon’.

And yet how can it be any other way? The NHS was one of the mostexpansive

socialist welfare experiments ever created. Health and Housing Minister Nye

Bevan oversaw the design and launch of the NHS and considered healthcare to

be an inalienable right of working people. The deep rooting of this socialist

principle in British commonsense is perhaps one of the most audacious acts of

welfare imagination.

While recognising the audacity of these welfare imaginaries, we must also

think critically about the idea of a ‘golden age’ of welfare. Refusing a rosetinted

nostalgia for the welfare past means being vigilant of the the failures of

the welfare past (and present). It means being attentive to which groups were

excluded, diminished or punished by welfare.

Welfare provision has always been a mechanism of social control and

stigma. From late 18th century systems of social support under the Poor

Laws, to the Benefit Cap and Universal Credit systems of today, welfare

mechanisms have been trained upon cost-saving, distinguishing between

‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ claimants, and processes of regulating and

(dis)incentivising the ‘problematic’ behaviour of particular groups.

Comprehensive welfare would recognise the extra costs of being disabled,

and seek to compensate those costs as a right. Instead, throughout the

history of welfare, disabled people have been (mis)cast as chronically

‘dependent’ upon welfare; ‘faking’ or exaggerating conditions in order to

maximise claims to help, or ‘softened’ by a welfare state that makes life too


The twentieth century welfare state was built upon the twin pillars of

socialism and nationalism. It was organised along the principle of improving

workers’ lives and protecting them against the excesses and risks of


But it was also organised along the principle of maintaining imperialist

ambitions. The post-war wealth of Britain was extracted via colonialism as

much as it was accumulated via industry: and indeed British industry relied

on the labour and materials delivered from its colonies. These extractive

processes were repeated in the waves of migration as workers arrived from

the Caribbean, India and Pakistan to Britain as part of the post-War


These workers were invited to Britain to build the welfare state - working in

the NHS, public transport and construction - but once here, they were cast

as a drain on public resources, unrecognised as skilled workers, subjected

to virulent racism, and positioned at the bottom of a hierarchy of racialised

labour. We see these same processes at work today in the ways media and

political elites blame the collapse of welfare institutions on ‘swarms of

migrants’, and in the negation of the labour of migrant workers who the NHS

depends on. Rethinking the welfare present means interrogating these

nationalist fantasies and recognising the colonial circuits which have made

the welfare state possible.

Welfare Present

What are the agendas, discourses, and images that characterise welfare

today? Where are the battles for 21st century welfare taking place? And how

can we respond to the dominant characterisations of welfare?

The welfare present is overwhelmingly shaped by austerity, a political project

implemented after the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 and which aimed to

reduce and dismantle public services. Although this crisis was caused by

unregulated financial capitalism, it has been (successfully) ‘re-imagined’ as a

crisis of ‘excessive’ public spending.

One of the prevalent narratives about the welfare state is that ‘over-generous’

welfare benefits have fostered ‘welfare dependency’. Benefit claimants are

demonised as lazy and lacking work ethic: ‘scroungers’, ‘skivers’ and ‘fakers’.

Welfare, in this narrative, is described as the cause of social problems.

Through these powerful myths our public and collective imaginaries about

welfare have been (like welfare spending itself) reduced and diminished.

The austerity project has been presented as one of ‘necessary pain’ - and

one motivated by ‘simple economics’. But austerity can and should be seen

as a class project, driven by deeply ideological beliefs about the welfare


The richest thousand people in the UK have doubled their wealth over the

austerity decade. Far from “being in it together” , austerity has protected

and consolidated the wealth of the richest, deepening divisions between the

richest and poorest.

The effects of austerity have not been equally experienced by all. The

decisions about how precisely to reduce welfare, how to prune public

spending, have shaped the uneven experience of austerity. Those who

are most affected by the austerity project of the welfare present are

overwhelming those who were already most likely to be living with

significant hardship: people working irregular or zero hours contracts, single

parents, people living with disability and chronic health conditions, large

families, people from ethnic minorities, women, and younger people.

The austerity project of the welfare present represents the administration of

a ‘slow violence’ by the state against those who most need social

protection: that is why we need to understand austerity as a class project.

Behind every statistic is the lives of real people

- people who are ‘kept in their place’, who are

‘struggling to get by’ and are angry at how the

system is letting them down

One of the reasons that the current climate of austerity is able to endure is

because the social and political imaginary is dominated by ideas and

discourses which ‘blame the poor for being poor’.

‘Poverty porn’ reality television, tabloid news, politicians depicting people

using foodbanks as ‘not being able to budget properly’- this current welfare

imaginary works to demonise and misrepresent poverty and welfare.

Dismantling this imaginary requires ‘mythbusting’ work: Calling out

discriminatory language and demonising depictions of benefit recipients,

challenging misinformation about welfare.

Another part of this work is through generating awareness of the realities of

poverty and precarity, and championing local resistance led by people at the

sharp end of the welfare present. Would new solutions to poverty be

discovered if the debate were led by ‘experts by experience’?

Looking across the

welfare past and

the welfare

present together,

we see the

continual reemergence

of old

ideas - who is

considered to be

‘deserving’ and

who must be

subjected to state

interventions in

order to be deemed

‘eligible for


Welfare Futures

January 2020.

Trying to think about the future of welfare, and social security in the UK: not

an easy task. 2019 ended with a General Election, which still feels raw, and

Brexit is around the corner. In the spirt of the zine, and the whole seminar

series, we reached out to others to ask what they think the future holds. What

comes back is a picture dominated by fear. Fear of more austerity. Fear that

the already-frayed social security safety net will become yet weaker. And

anger - that another, different, future, which felt tantalisingly possible so

recently, has disappeared and we look set for five more years of poverty and


But there is also hope. People speak of the possibility for resistance, and of

groups coming together locally to make small (but still significant) wins, and to

document the hardship benefit changes are causing. There is a call to reclaim

the language of ‘welfare’ as a force for good, and to undermine the lazy

stereotyping and stigmatising of ‘welfare dependency’. There is an appetite –

despite the fear and the despondency – to come together and resist. And it

feels more important than ever to create spaces for this resistance

The melancholy we felt about the future of welfare at the beginning of 2020

has now transformed into a more certain, grim recognition about who is

valued, and by how much. An unusual pneumonia was first reported to the

World Health Organisation in Wuhan, China on the final day of 2019. A new

virus was identified, the first deaths were reported, cases were confirmed

internationally, entire cities in the Hubei province were placed under

quarantine, and a global emergency was declared by WHO: yet the

coronavirus was largely ignored by British media who remained fixated on

‘Brexit news’ throughout January.

As Covid-19 moved inevitably into Europe in February, we saw first-hand

which governments were prepared to take early decisive preparatory action,

and which would downplay and dismiss warnings from countries already

dealing with the pandemic. The UK declined invitations to join an EU

scheme to stockpile medical equipment in preparation for the pandemic.

Major sporting events, concerts and festivals continued even as the number

of confirmed Covid-19 cases moved from hundreds into thousands. Advice

to the British public was confused and contradictory. A full UK national

lockdown was not announced until 23rd March. The Sunday Times recently

described the UK government as ‘sleepwalking’ into the pandemic.

These delays and indecision were ‘made sensible’ via popular mythologies

about the virus - ‘a mild flu’ - ‘children are immune’ - and perhaps most

significantly that it would only be fatal for those with ‘pre-existing conditions’.

Work, care and welfare have been transformed by the pandemic. The

national lockdown, announced in March, challenges broader ideas of what

counts as ‘essential work’. Supermarket staff, care workers, bus drivers, food

delivery workers, low-paid and often considered ‘unskilled’, are now

recognised as ‘key workers’, crucial in keeping Britain going in a time of crisis.

At the same time, the enduring question of how we categorise ‘work’ from

‘non-work’ is amplified by the closure of schools and nurseries. The often

gendered (and usually invisible) labour of parenting and other relationships of

care - social reproduction - has been forced back into public debate.

A government support scheme offers to pay 80% of earnings of furloughed

employees - but many workers are ineligible. More than a million new claims

have been made for Universal Credit since lockdown was announced. While

the dysfunctions with UC have been extensively documented, it is only now,

in the midst of a crisis, that the government starts to shift ground on UC:

offering an additional £20 a week to most claimants; and – overnight –

removing the stringent demands of conditionality, and ever present threat of

sanctions. And yet, many of the harshest elements of the regime remain: a

benefit cap that means many families will see no additional support; the twochild

limit; a five week wait before a first payment. The problems inherent to

UC will be magnified and accelerated through the pandemic, but will it force

policymakers into a meaningful change of direction?

The Covid-19 pandemic documents the violence of social inequality, and reveals

the fragility of our welfare institutions. The eugenic undertones of the early

‘reassurances’ about Covid-19 - that it was only ‘really’ dangerous to the elderly,

disabled and chronically ill - reflect longer and deeper devaluing of lives deemed

‘unproductive’ and therefore ‘undeserving’. It reflects some of the constitutive

limits to welfare which were manufactured and solidified under neoliberal ‘reform’.

The ability of (mostly professional) people to isolate at home, and remain

financially cushioned from the effects of national lockdown, is powerfully shaped

by the intersecting forces of social class, race, dis/ability, and employment and

citizenship status.

Workers remaining at the public frontlines of care and health work, often low-paid

and precarious, are routinely asked to work without adequate safety protocols.

People from BME backgrounds, disproportionately more at risk through housing

and employment circumstances to get Covid-19, are also more likely to become

critically ill and die. Every day we see bureaucratic indifference towards the most

vulnerable. The scandal of runaway infection in care and residential homes

remains largely unrecorded in Covid-19 statistics. The fragility of the social care

economy has never been more stark.

Meanwhile, the scale of corporate welfare, via a hefty Government support

package and bailouts for the corporate sector, has never been larger. The

Chancellor promised to do whatever it takes to support the economy, but he acted

fastest for businesses; and much slower for workers, and those already in poverty.

The pandemic reminds us how often ‘the economy’ trumps people.

Welfare Re-imaginings

How do we



What counter-narratives do we need to

incubate welfare imaginaries that are

rooted in solidarity, equality and


What opportunities does the pandemic

provide for us to create a new and

better future for welfare?

In a time of crisis, like a global pandemic, the desire to get ‘back to normal’

can feel overwhelming. But when ‘normal’ means for many people a

normalisation of insecurity, of punitive sanctioning, of ever-diminishing

benefit support and ever-increasing rents, energy, transport and food

costs, how appealing is a return to ‘normal’, really? After the last crisis -

the financial crash of 2008-09 - public appeals to ‘get back to normal’ were

made via the alarming imagery of a national deficit spiralling out of control.

The mythologies of deficit helped make the case for the long decade of


What will ‘getting back to normal’ be made to mean after the Covid-19

pandemic? What do we want normality to look like? What do we want to

‘get back to’?

As well as creating much disorientation and fearfulness, the pandemic has

forced some experiments with work, care and welfare, in ways that could

help us re-imagine the future of welfare. The myths that ‘big state’

interventions can only foster dependency and despair have been put on

hold. Some employers have introduced forms of flexible working that open

up debates about what ‘the working week’ might look like: can we extend

these to all work? The introduction of Universal Basic Income-type

schemes in some countries represent an emergency measure to mitigate

against insecurity in extraordinary times: might these experiments reignite

interest in more permanent universalist welfare systems, showing the

possibilities for benefit systems to operate without means-testing and


Welfare Resistance

We also see hope in this time of crisis, in the blossoming of mutual aid

groups. These local, autonomous, horizontal solidarity networks are

sustained by both established and emergent imaginaries that recognise and

act on injustice, and they feed back into those imaginaries.

Mutual aid groups operate outside of state welfare systems. They also

maintain independence from the police, local authorities, political parties,

faith groups and religious organisations and government bodies like the

Home Office. In doing so, they offer an alternative model for communityidentified

and led localised support that operates outside of surveillant,

conditional and punitive modes of provision. Since the pandemic began,

mutual aid groups have proliferated across the country in their thousands.

They generate new sensibilities of shared power without leadership and

hierarchy, and they prioritise the needs of the most vulnerable and excluded.

There are many things that mutual aid groups cannot hope to replicate and

reproduce from state welfare systems. And we should remain vigilant of

how such volunteer energy can be co-opted as ‘proof’ that welfare systems

can continue to be eroded. But the vitality that mutual aid can generate for

ambitious solidarity systems and placing those in the greatest need at the

centre of such work is going to be crucial in re-imagining the welfare of the


The outpouring of collective love for the most recognisably post-War welfare

systems - the NHS - has been monumental. Perhaps this pandemic moment

of love has been matched only by the scale of national grief for the healthcare

workers who have tragically lost their lives to the virus.

In this moment, we see the fragility of the NHS: both a profoundly central

symbol in the British national imaginary, and simultaneously financialised and

stealthily privatised over two decades. The failures to secure adequate,

WHO-standard, personal protective equipment for frontline nurses and

doctors, the running down of ‘excess’ equipment in the name of ‘efficiency’,

the encouragement of internal competition between healthcare trusts - all the

result of political decisions which have contributed to causing excess infection

and deaths.

In lockdown, pro-NHS sentiment has taken symbolic and philanthropic form,

from the doorstep theatre of ‘Clap for our Carers’ to various NHS charity

fundraisers. While undoubtedly well-intentioned and certainly ‘feelgood’,

these kinds of events and exercises also sentimentalise the political decisions

that shape healthcare. When welfare state healthcare has to be propped up

through charitable giving; when healthcare work brings unnecessary danger

for want of the correct equipment; when safety is supplanted by impotent

clapping, declarations of ‘heroism’ and tokenised with pithy badges - we must

acknowledge that the NHS has been systematically starved and hollowed out,

and demand that the NHS - our NHS - be immediately and fully resourced, be

made safe for its staff, and be restored as a public service.

I hope for a properly funded social security

system that looks after & supports anyone who

finds themselves in need. I fear no end to the

austerity policies that have unpicked the safety

net that protected the vulnerable from poverty and

food insecurity.

Alison Briggs

The past ten years of research tells me where UK

‘welfare’ is going in the future, which is the planned

demolition of the welfare state to be replaced by

private healthcare insurance…

Toxic neoliberal politics deem chronically ill and

disabled people to be a drain on government resources.

Mo Stewart

Lots of people are now saying

that they need to get back to

basics, doing more community

organising - working with


There are wins to be had in

changing aspects of Universal

Credit, and other benefits, and

building on recent manifestoes

to put forward new ideas.

There will be lots of groups

looking at fighting against

government policies as they

emerge and others looking at

small wins. I'm keen to focus on

getting together ideas/proposals

for what would be best and then

campaigning to make it happen.

That’s a way to enthuse people

in difficult times - knowing

there can be a better future

provides hope.



There is hope. At a local level, at an

everyday level. It may be questioning and

deconstructing the language we use about

welfare. Or, with others affected by

welfare, ‘co-imagining’ how things could be.

Listening is a transgressive act:

reflexively examining those truths that

cause a flinch. Bracketing the ‘past’, being

conscious of our nostalgic assumptions; the

welfare state has never (probably) been what

we wanted it to be. But collectively,

locally at first, we can carve out new ways

of challenging the future.

William Day

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